“I just want to leave a committed life behind”. That is a pronouncement from Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) which was seared in my mind the moment I read it when I was 16-years of age. It was a sentence in an excerpt of King’s Drum Major Instinct sermon which I stumbled upon while browsing through the pages of a national news magazine.
That year, a bill had been introduced in Congress to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday. The publication of the excerpt may have be art of a campaign to promote the initiative or it may have been part of the Black History Month observance.
As a High School student, King’s name was part of my everyday life. My route to school consisted of a drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Still, seeing King’s name on a street sign and attending a predominately African-American school where I was the only non-Black person in most of my classes did not mean I was familiar with King’s words or life. The excerpt from the Drum Major Instinct sermon compelled me to want to learn more about MLK Jr.
How did Martin Luther King K Jr. earn a hallowed place in American history? If you are like I was as a teenager and want to know more about MLK, I would urge you to do the following:
Watch ‘Eyes on the Prize’. It is a documentary on the American Civil Rights Movement that is based on a book by the same name. It tells how King and other Black leaders challenged the nation’s citizenry to be true to the ideals of equality and justice expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It tells how Black Americans were subject to persecution and death for no other reason than not being of European ancestry. The documentary shows how authorities used police dogs, mounted police, barb-wired-rapped batons and water cannons to try to stop non-violent organized activities that aimed to bring to light the wrongs wrought by the uneven implementation of the law.
You can also read MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”. It is a landmark document written while King was in detention for leading a nonviolent demonstration against segregation. In the letter, responding to the labeling of the marches for civil rights as “unwise and untimely”, King details the indignities and dangers faced daily by Black people in the Jim Crow era. King methodically lays out Black Americans’ grievances against government authorities explaining how the issues the demonstration addressed existed since the founding of the nation. He points out that the idea of “waiting” for the passing of time to fix unjust laws is not realistic. King’s letter teaches us that change in public policy in a society is brought about by brave individuals who are left with no choice except to impose their will on time via peaceful civil disobedience.
As a young person, I learned that Martin Luther King’s words, whether written or verbalized, placed context to the civil action that brought about the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the laws that transformed and continue to transform American society.
For me, the reason Martin Luther King Jr. words resonate is because they provide timeless lessons all people should know and heed:
In America, it is possible to achieve high-minded objectives if we have the courage to lead a life committed to reasoning beyond the common feeling and opinion of the day. Still, the possibility exists that the skewed views of a small number of individuals who harken for the past can be adopted into laws that pose a danger to humanity even in a democratic society.